Brian Simmons, who helped huddle up the 2005 Bengals, recalls this weekend ten years ago.
Brian Simmons and John Thornton, the defensive leaders of that first Marvin Lewis team to make the postseason 10 years ago, are still in the game.
Simmons, the club's 1998 first-round pick who became the most versatile Bengals linebacker ever, is a college scout for Jacksonville combing parts of the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Thornton, a defensive tackle who was Lewis' first major free-agent signing back when the Bengals had to do that sort of thing, is now an agent signing players and coaches to those deals.
We've come full circle Saturday night. Ten years later and it's a post-season rematch at Paul Brown Stadium of a Wild Card Game (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 12) that more than lived up to its name in an AFC North showdown between the division champion Bengals and sixth-seeded Steelers.
The similarities are eerie enough that Lewis was talking about exorcisms after Sunday's finale. After winning in Pittsburgh and losing in Cincinnati, the Bengals try to win the rubber game with a back-up quarterback.
"These two teams are probably more alike in DNA than they'd like to admit," Thornton says. "They're built the same way. Marvin came in with a plan to build his team a certain way and they're probably a little similar.
"There are more guys on the Bengals now that would be Steelers-type players back then. I even see what happened with Vontaze (Burfict) in pregame. That was Joey Porter of the Steelers back then, coming across the line and getting in somebody's face. I look at how this Bengals team is made up. It's made up of a type of guy the Bengals aren't afraid of anyone on the field or off guys you don't want to have problems with . . . They're real tough guys, but they still play a tough brand of football. They have to overcome the loss of Andy (Dalton) and that's going to be tough. But think if the team plays well, they'' be OK."
Like Thornton, Simmons believes the Bengals have a shot with Andy Dalton at quarterback to win a game Jon Kitna couldn't win coming off the bench ten years ago.
"I think both teams are coming in confident .The Bengals should be confident. They're the division champions. They've got a bunch of good players," Simmons says. "They won the division with Pittsburgh in it. That's why they play 16 games. To say they can't beat them is silly.
"I think they can win with McCarron. He's not playing by himself and the Bengals still have A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and Giovani Bernard and the big running back (Jeremy Hill), and a good offensive line. All McCarron has to do is play within the offense. As Marvin would say, just do his job."
Thornton calls it "The best game of the weekend," and the NFL must agree because they put it in the weekend's lone prime-time spot.
Go back ten years and Simmons and Thornton still have a pretty good snapshot of what happened in that god forsaken late Sunday afternoon game of Jan. 8, 2006, when the Bengals had yet to prove they were prime-time stuff. That was seven play-off berths ago. They get ripped for their prime-time play, but they keep putting them on.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.
"The organization and this team is in a much better place than it was 10 years ago," Thornton says.
"Remembering Carson getting hurt. That's the No. 1 thing anybody would have to remember," Simmons says.
On the Bengals' first post-season pass in 15 years, Carson Palmer, their franchise quarterback who had led them out of the desert with Lewis, tore his ACL throwing a 66-yard pass to Steelers killer Chris Henry, also suffering a season-ending knee injury on the same play.
If that wasn't enough, it was revealed the next day that at halftime of the 31-17 loss, Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson snapped because he wasn't getting the ball and had to be restrained by Lewis and an alert up-and-coming wide receivers coach named Hue Jackson in a Theater of the Absurd scene where Johnson's I.V. came flying out of his arm, splattering the training room door with blood as Palmer, flat out on a training table with his wife at his side, watched.
"This why I thought it would be best if they played the Steelers instead of somebody like the Jets. Knowledge of the opponent," Thornton says. "I felt like at the time we were ready. We beat them up there, they beat us here. I think mentally and physically we were really ready. I felt like we knew exactly what they wanted to do and I thought defensively we would have enough to hold them down so our offense could crush them. I think even with Carson out, we were up 10-0. I felt like we were ready to go. It sucked Carson got hurt. It wasn't just that you lost your quarterback, but the offense stalled, they picked up some steam, and ran some trick plays on us that unraveled us. It's tough when you're a quarterback and come into a game like that. It happened with Andy last time. It's tough to just switch gears. We stalled offensively and our weak defense couldn't hold up."
It was Simmons' only shot in the playoffs in 10 seasons. He thought they could make a deep run.
"There was nobody in that locker room and building that didn't think we were going to win if Carson played," Simmons says.
Thornton: "We thought we matched up well with everybody in the AFC. We knew we could beat Denver. We had beaten them the year before. We had a tough time in Indy with Peyton (Manning), Edgerrin James, and those receivers. We couldn't stop them, but they couldn't stop us."
Michael Johnson (above) found his way back to Cincinnati and another Wild Card shot with the help of agent and '05 defensive captain John Thornton.
Simmons and Thornton have insisted all year long in this 10th anniversary of the Bengals' first AFC North championship that Johnson's outburst had nothing to do with the outcome.
"Coaches are yelling, guys are going to the bathroom and trying to eat 12 oranges. I don't think anything in the locker room affected the game," Thornton once said of that halftime.
SIMMONS: "It was really a minor issue in the whole thing. It wasn't the most important thing in those three hours. We lost out quarterback. That's what happened. The other stuff, things like that happen whether it's in the locker room at halftime, or on the sidelines, or pregame. A player has to put that stuff aside and do their job."
Thornton agrees with the current Bengals that they can't lose their composure like they did against the Steelers last month. He doesn't think they will and he thinks McCarron will respond.
"If he trusts his weapons, if he trusts his play calls and doesn't see the rush, he'll play well," Thornton says. "Just the little time I've seen him, the only time he didn't is when he starts to run around a little bit. And that can be hard for your quarterback not to see down field and see the rush. That's probably what happened in the second half of the Broncos game and it happened a little bit early on Sunday against Baltimore.
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Cincinnati Bengals vs Baltimore Ravens game 01/04/2016
"In any type of game against the Steelers when they're going to blitz a lot, you have to trust your play calls, trust your big receivers, your big tight end. He's got to take a few shots downfield. When you play the Steelers, you always have to take a few shots downfield. The Steelers offense may put up some points, but the Bengals defense has shown they can slow them down. They held them to ten points up there. They've got the DBs and the front seven to stop the run."
Simmons says the key is the Bengals front four getting to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a much different player than a decade ago.
"He was the quarterback in a power running game and he'd make some throws out of the pocket," Simmons says. "Now he's got these really explosive receivers that he didn't have when I was playing and they rely on his arm. You can't let him sit back there and read. But the Bengals have that good front starting with Geno (Atkins) and the outside rushers."
Simmons, ever the scout, loves the Bengals' makeup.
"They're a better team than we were, much more experienced," Simmons says. "Look at how much experience they have. The core of their team only knows about the playoffs. That's all they've known."
Simmons admits he didn't get very nostalgic when he saw the matchup the day the Jaguars ended their fifth straight losing season.
"I'm trying to help get the Jaguars to the playoffs," Simmons says. "But I hope they get a play-off win for Marvin, Mike (Brown) and the family. The unfortunate thing in this league is that people focus on what you haven't done and don't give you credit for the things you have done. That said, you know these guys don't want to go home after one week again. I think they'll play well and get a good game from the quarterback."